Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Listening to Some Jazz

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I have talked about the essential activity of listening to music as part of the process of becoming a better musician. All kinds of music, all genres, even if you don’t like them, can bring new insights. Depending on your likes, dislikes, and age, some may take more work than others, but if we are willing to persist in the activity something interesting can happen. Since I am about to re-run the series I did on jazz last spring and summer, I wanted to take a week to talk about one of my most interesting and productive listening experiences in jazz music. Jazz is a language that is constantly evolving. From the most free-form of today’s music there is a connection to New Orleans and Dixieland over 100 years ago. Jazz builds on itself, grows new branches, adds new understandings to the old, and never fails its connections, even when the musicians may think it does.

Last summer at Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop I had the pleasure of meeting one of the new, young, and exciting trumpet players, John Raymond. As he taught us and performed his magic with us I realized that here was one who was writing a new chapter to the jazz history. He’s just starting at it, but it will be very interesting to see what happens. At the end of the workshop I bought his trio album, Real Feels, Vol. 1. I put it in the CD player leaving Shell Lake and listened to it three times on the way home. I decided that I want to be like John when I grow up!

Then in the fall he came out with a live version of the album, Real Feels, Vol. 1, Live. They both are in constant rotation on my playlist. I have spent many wonderful hours listening to them. I never get tired of them. Remarkable is too tame a word for them. Even with some of the same songs on both- the albums are so very different. The trio has an incredible chemistry that falls into place so smoothly and with grace, the only word that truly describes it.

I believe John made a comment at Shell Lake last summer about wanting to take jazz into new directions. On these albums he is showing that new directions can come from taking several traditional songs, Amazing Grace, I’ll Fly Away, and This Land is Your Land and turning them into remarkable performances. Or they take the iconic Beatles’ song, Yesterday, and give it wordless insight into the human condition. They then add new dimensions to two contemporary pieces, Atoms for Peace by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and Minor Silverstein by Minnesotan and New Yorker Chris Morrissey.

I highly recommend them as a direction for your listening enjoyment and growth as a musician. Volume 1 Live is a recording that lives and breathes the power of improvisation. Even on the same tunes from the studio recording, (listen and compare!) it is like listening to a whole new composition- a finely developed new composition. The same songs on both albums are not the same songs. The live versions are often twice as long as the studio versions and are incredibly alive. Creative artists, like John and his bandmates Gilad Hekselmans & Colin Stranahan. know how to make music together. It is clear they know what they want to say and then put it into the context. John and guitarist Hekselmans have some wonderful conversations in ways we don’t normally expect. They don’t trade 4s, they talk with each other, echoing and adding to the music, giving meaning and purpose. John’s flugelhorn will kind of slip in a few phrases, adding color to a song, then wait his turn to solo again. Behind them is Stranahan’s incredible rhythm.

One part of jazz history has been to take non-jazz compositions like the Great American Songbook and others, and translating them into jazz. Real Feels is a new experiment in this process. Sure, these have all been done in jazz groups, dixieland arrangements, big band charts. Real Feels takes them into a trio context with a more bare-bones style. The emotion and groove of each piece has to be shared and developed across only three instruments. The changes in “color” you find vocally or with more instruments has to be accomplished more subtly. This album succeeds at all those levels. It is amazing! The “feelings” of the music have to be “real” since it’s hard to hide them or embellish them with more instrumentation. And they do it live on the bandstand!

Here is my take on the songs:

I’ll Fly Away
Funky Dixie or Dixie funk? It opens this CD and lets you know that this is something unlike most of what you have heard. The drummer, Colin Stranahan, propels the song from beginning to end. John and Gilad jump on for the ride. In so doing they all provide the spirit that this song calls for.

Even without knowing the theme, it is clear that this is a song of loss on longing. It has the amazing mournfulness of the words without words. Many of us do know the words- they have been a deep part of the American popular music scene for over 50 years. As the traditional melody appears and disappears we feel the words within us before the solo takes us into new space. The flugelhorn’s musical color makes the song speak in new ways.

Amazing Grace
This piece blows me away! It is in the same slow style as Yesterday, but it is never mournful. It is the Blues without being blue. There is joy in this piece. John’s mastery of the sound of the flugelhorn never allows it to sound mournful, which could happen, but is not appropriate for this song. There is quiet grace at the beginning. It then moves into powerful, life-filling grace and ends with an Amen progression- to a coda of the theme. John starts this piece with a beautiful introduction that sets the stage for the grace that is about to be laid on us. (I fell in love with the intro and have made it a work in progress to learn the solo by ear. The first I have ever tried.)

This Land is Your Land
I always have fun trying to figure out what the music is doing that fits the theme or words of the song. This iconic Woody Guthrie song is a reminder of the land.
“…From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”
I hear that in the music. The joy, the fun of rambling the country is in the words, but listen.. These guys bring it to the music as well. I swear I heard the Woody Woodpecker call in the midst of it. They end with the feel of that wonderful verse:
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
Listen carefully, too, and you will hear Guthrie’s anti-establishment hard-edged politics in the recording as well, the undercurrent of this powerful anthem. I have listened to Vol. 1 Live dozens of times in the past nine months and am never bored- or disappointed. I hear a new lick, a different interpretation. There is so much wonder in the songs on this album, so much creativity and direction, it could be a textbook of what one can do with even deeply familiar- and non-jazz songs.

Atoms for Peace
Which brings me to Atoms for Peace. It starts with 2 1/2 minutes of drums laying down the foundation of the flying saucer eyes and wormholes of the original lyrics. After a bass intro John’s flugelhorn gives the softness of “wiggling warmth”, but it never overcomes the sensuousness underlying Yorke’s original. The drums keep moving, the guitar feels like a series of quantum leaps (i.e. the internal process of atoms) until the flugel ties it all together at the end.

Minor Silverstein
A bonus cut on the CD is Morrissey’s Minor Silverstein. I have to admit upfront that this piece has a lot of jazz language that I have trouble understanding. I can’t even begin to unwrap it for you. Part of that is my age and style of music I have listened to and played. I appreciate the incredible musicianship of the trio and understand some of what it is saying. But, so far, it’s not part of my vocabulary. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it or that I am giving up on it. On the contrary, it is a piece that can no doubt help me grow in my own skills. That is what listening is all about and why I have talked about these here. I’m looking forward to spending some time with John later this month and hopefully again later in the year. I want to know how to speak the language even better!

So go, enjoy music. Find some videos of John and Real Feels. And most certainly, BUY their albums. Support the music.

Then play it yourself!

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